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Switched On: Multi-room music's rocket ride

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Multi-room music has a long history as the province of the wealthy, the corporate, and those with the forethought to build or buy new construction with the structured wiring to support it. But over the past few years a number of companies have tried various wireless technologies to bring multi-room music closer to the masses. Some companies have used proprietary wireless systems while others have used WiFi, and yet others have tried both approaches in different products at different times.

Those approaches, though, now face competition from a new ingredient brand called Rocketboost. While it may sound like a powdered nutritional supplement that Jamba Juice adds to smoothies, Rocketboost uses the second generation of a wireless audio technology dubbed AudioMagic 2G, which developer Avnera claims is the first multipoint to multipoint HD wireless audio platform. Indeed, AudioMagic 2G can support up to five sources and nine receivers -- significantly shy of Sonos's 32 zones, but enough to cover many homes. Each Rocketboost receiver has, at minimum, a button to cycle through active sources, and the standard also supports displays that would enable more flexibility in source selection, particularly AudioMagic 2G has a data channel for sending information about a source and the content it is playing.

Avnera's first-generation technology was used by Best Buy in its Rocketfish wireless rear speaker surround kit, and the retail giant plans to do much of the boosting behind Rocketboost. For one, it's upgraded that rear speaker surround kit to accommodate 7.1-channel 96kHz audio for Blu-ray -- a jumping-off point that serves as a Trojan horse for building a whole-home audio system based around Best Buy's Rocketboost PC audio kits and outdoor speakers.

And Best Buy has even greater ambitions for the technology: it's encouraging other consumer electronics companies to license Avnera's technology and sell Rocketboost-enabled components at its stores and at other retailers worldwide. Some home audio companies may bite, particularly if it could help in having Best Buy feature their products. Others, though, have started down a different path; Sony's S-Air technology, which the company has integrated into a family of audio components, appears to be the closest competitor. Hedging its bets and offering consumers multiple opions, Best Buy has partnered with Sony to sell its S-Air products under the Altus name.

The retailer's distribution and consideration of backward compatibility position the technology well to expand the customer base for multi-room music, but Rocketboost's technical flexibility can require some depth of understanding. For example, the PC speaker kit acts as both a transmitter and a receiver that can connect to powered speakers. The 5.1 rear surround audio product can be upgraded to a 7.1 option with the purchase of another box. And the outdoor speaker kit will gracefully upgrade its audio from monophonic to stereophonic when a second outdoor speaker is added.

As would be expected from a private-label brand, Rocketfish-branded Rocketboost gear stacks up pretty well in pricing. A pair of wireless transmitters/receivers lists for $120 whereas a wireless transmitter and receiver using EOS Wireless's Converge system costs $200, That's the same price as a single Sony S-Air tramsmitter/receiver or a Logitech Squeezebox Radio, the least expensive in its current lineup. However, an AirTunes-equipped Airport Express that uses an existing Wi-Fi network costs only $99.

While it rolls out with some gaps in its functionality compared to more mature systems, Rocketboost's tactical approach to building wireless audio functionality explores new options that are, in many cases, more flexible and interference-resistant than existing 900MHz and 2.4GHz alternatives while also simpler to set up than secure Wi-Fi. Beyond that, much will depend on how successfully Best Buy can evangelize the technology to other manufacturers. Regardless, it will continue to be a slow path toward mainstream whole-home music -- even Rockets don't seem very fast when you're shooting for the moon.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.